This and That
Odd place Shepparton. Nowhere else in the world I have lived have I had to hand-pollinate my zucchinis each year. I think I know why. The local bees, buzz happily into the plants’ great yellow flower trumpets, only to find that they are crawling with little ants. So they buzz off, pollen deprived and angry, before formic acid dripping pincers fasten on to their little tootsies. A good clergyman needs to be a jack of all trades, I am an expert on the artificial insemination of zucchini plants.
Travels in Oudamovia
Margaret continues to travel well with her inoperable lung cancer and remains serenely untroubled by the imminence of the earthly fate predicted for her. So we live happily from day to day, enjoying an Indian Summer much longer than doctors expected, and one which, what with global warming, might extend itself almost indefinitely! Is it medicine, prayer, attitude or luck? That’s the mystery. Faith doesn’t bother with such questions though, knowing that the God behind all that is, lies behind all of those possible answers.
In 1976 one of the authors who has most influenced my life, John Austin Baker, wrote a little book called “Travels in Oudamovia”. It is an imaginary story about a Christian community living on a small and remote island, out of touch with the rest of the world since shortly after the time of Christ. The community attempts to live the Gospel under constant threat of inevitable extinction from an increasingly angry volcano. To Margaret and myself, as well as to others among us who live with the constant threat of an imminent and inevitable end by way of a terminal illness, such a book has now a particular personal relevance. It is relevant to us all though, because this was how the early Church lived when the Epistles and Gospels were being written, totally convinced of the world’s imminent end with our Lord’s Second Coming and so the book throws all sorts of contextual light on the Gospels. I intend using it as a Lenten Study next year.
Walking back along Maude Street the other day I passed a pair of youths guzzling with evident and legitimate pleasure a milk-based drink from cardboard cartons. When they had finished they dropped the cartons on the pavement. Remonstration these days invites only abuse, so I gave them a friendly nod and picked their cartons up to put in the bin for them. It elicited astonishment rather than abuse, but I’m pessimistic about it causing them to change their ways.
We have two resident litter louts of our own at St Augustine’s. There is the white mulberry tree between the rectory and the church. It litters the path with grey-white, foot squelching, maggots of fruit. It is a beautiful and shady tree, bringing great flocks of unmusical but exquisite rainbow lorikeets to gorge on its fruit and then swarm over our bird tray, taking the sweetness out of their beaks, not like we do after a rich dessert by nibbling cheese and biscuits, but by nibbling seeds that all the experts say they shouldn’t eat. A curse on any future and too tidy-minded rector who takes the tree out!
The other resident litter lout is the great gum tree in the rectory garden which, as I write, sheds its bark to litter the garden, clog the gutters and decapitate my Cape Gooseberry plants. Another beautiful tree. I particularly love the way its smooth new bark wrinkles and folds beneath its many elbow and knee joints.
Samuel Beckett, a lugubrious writer of sombre, pessimistic plays that are exciting only to intellectuals and would be intellectuals, did say a few fascinating things. One of them was: “God doesn’t exist, the bastard!” That is the sort of atheism I appreciate. If God doesn’t exist he ought to. Faith, belief and church as I have known and experienced them are beautiful. If for any reason I had to give them away it would break my heart. Antagonistic and critical atheism on the other hand I find difficult to fathom. How can anyone hate something I know to be so lovely?
The Parish Hall
Our Parish Hall, though a very spacious and fine facility is dated, rundown, a tad dowdy, and at the back entrance decidedly dingy. Your Parish Council is in the process of deciding how best to improve the facility. We hope soon to put in a toilet for the disabled and baby change facilities, to tile and brighten the back hall entrance, construct a decent wheelchair ramp and brighten up and improve the toilets. Plans are being considered and estimated costs will soon be available either to enable or thwart us. As is usual with most calls for change there is a degree of disagreement and certainly more debate lies ahead, but improvement there is certain to be. We would also like eventually to provide an evaporative cooling system. The Catering Group, which calls upon the charity and hard work of so many parishioners, has saved a substantial amount of money which is destined to contribute to the cost.
The Parish Fair
The Parish Fair was again a great success, raising around $20,000. The Treasurer’s Report lists the gross takings of each stall. This is for future planning and interest’s sake, not because we judge a stall’s merit on the amount of money it raises. A worthwhile and successful Fair needs variety, diversity, entertainment and good value for money, it cannot focus only upon profit. People come for bargains, to have an enjoyable time and to support St Augustine’s not to be fleeced. Our Fair really is a very fine one, possibly the best in Shepparton, certainly something to be proud of. Thank you to everyone involved. I was the nominal Chairman this year and so deserve nominal thanks and praise. Behind the success lay the far from nominal flair, detailed planning and vision of Pat Gibson, plus the experience of many an old hand and the hard work of almost all of us.
The Rev. Dr Helen Malcolm
The year’s best news is that the Rev. Dr Helen Malcolm is returning to live and work in Shepparton. She will be a very busy person, employed in at least two capacities as a medico, but determined to play a role here in the parish too. She will bring much wisdom to our clergy team and both Gail and I look forward to working with her.
Rest in Peace
One of the melancholy accompaniments of getting older is the death of old friends and heroes. A year or so ago one of my very favourite poets, Charles Causley died. I am at present reading through his collected works in the chapel each morning, a poem or two a day. A wonderful, richly imaged and Christian world, full of Cornwall and the sea. Now I read of the death of another old favourite, Vernon Scannell, a drifter, boxer, army deserter, certainly no Christian but a very fine if not well known poet. Here is one of my favourites:
Is it like a carnival with spangles and balloons,
Fancy-dress and comic masks and sun-drenched afternoons
Without a cloud to spoil the blue perfection of the skies?
“Well yes, at first, but later on it might seem otherwise.”
Is it like a summer night when stock and roses stain
The silken dark with fragrance and the nightingale again
Sweetly pierces silence with its silver blades of song?
“I say once more it can be thus, but not for very long.”
Is it like a great parade with drums and marching feet
And everybody cheering them, and dancing in the street,
With laughter swirling all around and only tears of joy?
“If that alone, you’d find the fun would soon begin to cloy.”
Is it like the falling snow, noiseless through the night;
Mysterious as moonlight and innocent and bright,
Changing the familiar world with its hypnotic spell?
“It has been known to be like that, and other things as well.
“But if you find, when all the brightest ribbons have grown frayed
The colours faded, music dumb, and all that great parade
Dismissed into the darkness where the moon has been put out,
Together you find warmth and strength, then that’s what it’s about.”
Picking and picking on hymns
One of the less rewarding tasks of being priest, choir master and parish dog’s body, is picking hymns. This is because among all the nightingales, crooners, croakers, warblers, wobblers, boomers and bellowers in a congregation are always a fair number of moaners. If they don’t know a hymn they moan, if they don’t like a hymn they moan, it they think a hymn too miserable they moan, if they think a hymn too frequently picked they moan, if they think a hymn is too long or stolid they moan. The criteria used in picking hymns at St Augustine’s are both considered and time consuming, a part of the immense amount of trouble taken to make each Sunday’s service flow smoothly along. Effort is taken, where possible, to link hymns to the readings or sermon. Consideration is given to the familiarity and singability of tunes, especially for strangers or infrequent churchgoers at Children’s Church and baptisms. An attempt is usually made to ensure that the quality of a hymn’s words and sentiments reach the standards necessary for intelligent worship. The worthiness of tunes as tunes as well as the extremities of pitch are usually taken account of. Having said that, criticism for the over use of familiar hymns at the 10.30am Eucharist is possibly justified, and I have therefore been selecting some more unfamiliar hymns, though wherever possible of a high quality. Banal ditties and religious nursery rhymes I cannot and will not countenance.
Christmas as Fraud
It is hard these days to say anything about Christmas that isn’t sentimental, trite or meanspirited. However, we should try not to be resentful of it commercialisation and vulgarity at the hands of those who don’t acknowledge its truth in any way. It is a feast for everyone, not just Christians. As Kenneth Stevenson says, Christmas: “is not something which the Church possesses, but is rather God’s wonderful gift to the whole human race, symbolised in the racially mixed, religiously varied and economically insecure world into which God climbs though his own back door at Bethlehem.”
Christmas as Blessing
We need to turn to the poets on the subject of Christmas if we are to avoid triteness and sentimentality. How about this, by David Wright, another of my favourite poets now deceased:
An anniversary approaches: of the birth of god
In a stable, son of virgin and a carpenter,
But really issued from loins of omnipotent glory:
A babe, ejected from the thighs, greased in mucus and blood,
Weeping with its first breath, suffering the cold air, high king
Of the galaxies, and powerless as a fieldmouse.
Over him breathe the oxen; shepherds who have seen a star
Honour the obscure event; and, they say, three travelling
Magi, or charlatans. This is the messenger of hope;
The military have been instructed to deal with him.
A wholesale killing, their invariable strategy,
While abolishing a generation, fails of effect.
We are asked to believe all this (it’s only to start with),
What a jumble of the impossible and casual,
Of commonplace mixed with violence; ordinary muddle;
The props and characters scruffy; at best unheroic.
Yet accordant with the disposition of things holy
As we understand them; whose epiphanies are banal,
Not very aesthetic; gnomic; unremarkable;
And very much like what we have to put up with daily.
So from Margaret and myself, have a Christmas that is all the more blessed and authentic for being banal, not very aesthetic; gnomic; unremarkable....